Sponsored by Stetson University College of Law, the 17th Annual Special Needs Trust (SNT) National Conference, held October 14-16, 2015 in St. Petersburg, Florida, fulfilled its promised objective of providing "an in-depth review of major issues presented in the creation, administration and monitoring of special needs trusts."
The three-day conference included an optional one day "Pre-Conference" featuring two alternative curriculum choices - "Tax Intensive" and "Pooled Trust Intensive" - plus a one day "Basics of SNTs" as well as the "SNT National Conference" itself.
Except for the Tax Intensive Pre-Conference, the other three programs each included multiple breakout sessions - for a total of 45 SNT-related presentations delivered during three days. Befitting this highly regarded program, the speakers represented a "who's who" of nationally-recognized SNT experts. In addition to power point presentations, almost every speaker also provided an original supporting handout paper.
More than 500 professionals attended the conference - many of whom are themselves recognized national SNT experts. Twenty-five (25) companies exhibited.
In addition to the outstanding speakers, the diversity of topics, the exceptional networking opportunities, the organizational acumen as well as the attractive conference setting and amenities, S2KM found the following conference issues to be noteworthy from a structured settlement and personal injury settlement planning perspective.
- Working through their national associations [especially the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) and the Special Needs Alliance (Alliance)] as well as less formal groups such as the SSI Advocacy Committee, special needs attorneys have become increasingly involved in legislative and regulatory lobbying. The SNT Fairness Act, which, if enacted, would allow persons with disabilities to create their own SNTs, represents one important current example.
- Among the highlights of the Stetson SNT Conference were two interactive video conferences featuring national and regional Social Security Administration (SSA) representatives. This dialogue followed, and may have resulted from, a series of meetings between individual SNT attorneys (the SSI Advocacy Committee) and SSA senior staff members which began in 2013 to address problems identified by, and complaints from, SNT stakeholders with the SSA's SNT approval process.
- The SSA representatives addressed numerous questions from the Stetson attendees in addition to outlining their internal processes and challenges. They also announced their intention to "retire" the controversial SSA Trust Training Guide (released April 23, 2014) which unfortunately conflicts with the POMS, SSA's primary technical resource, in several important respects. Among its problems, the SSA Trust Training Guide states that additions to a (d)(4)(A) SNT after age 65 results in disqualification with no mention of the exception that exists in the POMS (SI 01120-203b.1.C) for structured settlements.
- Additional legislative and regulatory issues exist that impact both structured settlements and special needs trusts and provide a growing rationale for collaborative lobbying to benefit their shared client communities. For examples, both professional groups would benefit from regulatory authority confirming that 1) the Deficit Reduction Act annuity rules do not apply to structured settlements; and 2) the mere existence of a secondary market does not disqualify SNTs funded with structured settlements.
Affordable Care Act
- From S2KM's perspective, Stetson's 2015 SNT conference allocated insufficient time to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Presentations included one Pre-Conference Tax Intensive session titled "The Role of MAGI in Special Needs Planning" plus a two-part Basic's session titled "The Planner's Evolving Tool Box" during which the ACA shared conference time with SNTs, ABLE Accounts and other public benefits such as SSI, SSDI, Veteran's Pensions, the Disability Military Child Protection Act, CHIP, Section 8 Housing, and SNAP (formerly Food Stamps). By comparison, three separate, additional one hour sessions were devoted to ABLE Accounts during the three days of presentations.
- In fairness, Janet Lauder, who was allocated only 20 minutes to discuss the ACA, provided a valuable written analysis of the ACA as part of her conference handout materials.
- The ACA, however, is clearly a "game changer" for special needs planning and may prove a "career changer" for many special needs attorneys. Scott Solkoff points out the reasons in his excellent Spring 2015 NAELA Journal article titled "Report on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Its Impact on the Special Needs and Elder Law Practice", (reviewed here by S2KM).
- SNTs and Medicaid are now options and no longer necessities for many special needs clients. The ACA's elimination of pre-existing condition restrictions in health insurance policies complicates the insurance decision making process, as well as fundamental "needs and/or cost analysis", for special needs clients - as Solkoff illustrates with a suggested and valuable list of post-ACA client information questions.
- As ACA experts such as attorney David Lillesand have pointed out, ACA private health insurance offers special needs clients several potential advantages compared with SNTs. These advantages include: 1) ability to select your own insurer and insurance plan - and change annually if not satisfied; 2) a wider range of doctors; 3) no ongoing re-certification or sole benefit rule; 4) no estate repayment requirements; plus 5) reduced costs by eliminating SNT attorney, trustee and annual tax preparation fees.
- Given the many complicated ACA issues, continuing ACA developments and their profound impact on special needs individuals and special needs attorneys, Stetson conference attendees would have benefited from more time allocated to detailed ACA analysis and practice recommendations.
- Structured settlement brokers and special needs attorneys frequently play important and complementary roles in personal injury settlement planning. Historically, SNTs have represented a strategic submarket for structured settlements. Arguably, both the ACA and the ABLE Act provide additional opportunities for these two professional groups to collaborate. As suggested above, multiple legislative and/or regulatory issues exist involving both structured settlements and SNTs. Clearly, an important strategic relationship exists between these two professional communities.
- Somewhat surprisingly, therefore, the 2015 Stetson conference exhibited virtually no indication of this strategic relationship. For example, by S2KM's count, only one National Structured Settlement Trade Association (NSSTA) broker and zero NSSTA annuity provider representatives attended the conference. No NSSTA brokers or NSSTA annuity providers exhibited or spoke at the conference. This lack of attendance and participation by structured settlement participants at a prestigious SNT conference constitutes a notable missed opportunity - for learning, networking and improving the image of structured settlement brokers.
- For examples of why NSSTA and its members might want to improve their image with at least some special needs attorneys, see S2KM's 2012 blog review of the legal treatise "Special Needs Trusts: Planning, Drafting and Administration", edited by Kevin Urbatsch. In this two volume SNT treatise, structured settlements are the only SNT "funding product" that receives detailed coverage. Chapter 8 authors Donna Bradshaw and Leslie Ann Barnett justify devoting 12 subsections to "structured settlements" by stating: "special needs planners need to understand how structured settlements work with first party SNTs to best advise personal injury attorneys, persons with disabilities, and their families." Rather than endorse structured settlements, however, they provide several warning and cautionary notes.
- Although it was impossible for S2KM to attend every Stetson conference presentation, not one presentation S2KM did attend mentioned structured settlements. Significantly, during her presentation titled "Marketing Your Special Needs Planning Skills to Others; Expanding Your Practice Focus", Shirley Whitenack, current President of NAELA, emphasized a team-oriented special needs practice and recommended networking with other allied professionals "who can be an excellent source for referrals." Among allied professionals she identified: other attorneys; accountants; financial planners; financial advisors; insurance agents; trust officers; life care planners; care managers; teachers; family members; and medical providers - but did not mention structured settlement consultants.
- Both the structured settlement and the special needs attorney professional communities appear to be undergoing generational transitions at the same time the ACA is transforming both of their traditional practices. Now is an appropriate time for both professions to re-examine collaborative opportunities as they re-think their own future direction and growth.
- In a second article appearing in the Spring 2015 issue of the NAELA Journal, titled "The Affordable Care Act and the Continued Commoditization of Elder Law", (also reviewed here by S2KM) E. Spencer Ghazey-Bates warns that key provisions of the ACA, when combined with the anticipated addition of predictive technology "will either enable nonattorneys to compete with [elder and special needs] attorneys for clients or result in clients simply self-educating to the point of no longer needing attorney guidance."
- Ghazey-Bates is not alone in predicting some negative consequences for traditional special needs law practice as a result of the ACA. Attorney Lillesand, for example, observed during the Academy of Special Needs Planners (ASNP) 2012 Annual Conference and continues to opine that: "The need for self-settled (first party) special needs trusts has decreased (except when a beneficiary requires long term institutional care) because the ACA provides better insurance options than Medicaid for many persons with pre-existing medical conditions including personal injury victims."
- Assuming the ACA restricts their traditional SNT practice, special needs attorneys presumably will be forced to expand and/or redirect their practice by providing new services to new and/or existing clients. Both the Stetson conference two-part panel discussion titled "The Planner's Evolving Tool Box" and Whitenack's "Expanding Your Practice Focus" presentation highlighted, at least indirectly, this new reality. Indeed, the broad knowledge and skill sets associated with special needs law as a practice field should permit many special needs attorneys to successfully transition their practice.
- One expanding opportunity for special needs attorneys, actually a strategic component of special needs practice that deserves and requires greater independent market and product analysis, is personal injury settlement planning. Rather than restrict settlement planning opportunities for special needs attorneys, the ACA and other continuing legislative and regulatory developments actually increase those opportunities in S2KM's opinion.
- ASNP, an association of special needs attorneys, appears to support S2KM's opinion. ASNP recently sponsored a 12-part webinar series about "Settlement Planning" as distinct from "Special Needs Planning". And the distinctions are important - from both a marketing and work product perspective. S2KM highlighted some of the differences between these two related professional disciplines in this recent blog post.
- Although multiple speakers at Stetson's 2015 conference made references to personal injury settlement planning, future Stetson conferences could benefit from greater attention to both the settlement planning market itself as well as post-ACA settlement planning specific analytic and work product opportunities for special needs attorneys.